Saturday, March 28, 2020

Westons Cider: Beef and Apple producer sees machinery investment bear fruit

February 28, 2020 by  
Filed under Profiles

A self-propelled apple picker is driving improvements at Westons Cider, reports Simon Wragg.

A shake-up in machinery is bearing fruit at Herefordshire-based Westons Cider’s 160ha (400ac) in-hand farming operation – with self-propelled picker improve the quality of apples harvested for pressing.

The family business has invested in a Scimitar harvester manufactured by SFM Technology and supplied by Ledbury-based AgriMec. It is helping drive improvements at the core of the apple operation.

Orchard manager Tom Churchill explains: “The Scimitar is helping us to harvest more of the natural windfalls before the main mechanised harvesting begins. Windfalls are an indication that the sugar levels in the apples are right for picking so we’re not forcing so many off the tress.”

Like both the arable and grassland sectors ground compaction is a big concern for orchard owners. Within the narrow rows of the fruit trees here’s little opportunity to right any damage to soil structure with heavy machinery.

The Scimitar’s floatation tyres aim to minimise damage during the annual harvest but also, importantly, leave the surface unrutted for follow-on operations such as topping and spraying which recommence as the growing season resumes.

The other big improvement with the new self propelled machine is saving labour, says Mr Churchill. “We were running 3.5t trailer loads across the weighbridge at the mill. We are now able to deliver 8-9t at a time – saving around two-thirds of the time weighing in.”

Improvements in throughput allows a driver when not weighing in to operate a mechanical shaker to release ripe fruit from the plots of standard (organic apples) and bush (planted in rows) trees, it’s explained.

Cider market

While the cider market relies on heritage appeal to help sell the product – the UK cider market is worth around £3.1bn /year and domestic consumption is estimated at 822m litres (that’s 329 Olympic-sized swimming pools) – market forces demand production costs are kept in check.

Industry figures highlighted in Westons’ own annual cider market report reinforce the fact the domestic market has reached a plateau after strong growth to 2010. Demand for fruit ciders continues to grow whilst traditional pear cider has fallen sharply – down 25.8% in recent years.

But far from being gloomy, UK cider is still in demand worldwide – including Westons-owned brands of Stowford Press and Mortimers – with UK cider accounting for 39% of the international market.

And when the sun shines there is a need to crack on with operations in the orchards, adds Mr Churchill. “We are very much driven by the weather. That’s why we tend to run two Berthoud Airblast sprayers and two toppers to ensure the fruit and the orchards are in show condition throughout the year.”

Pedigree cattle

And it’s not just in the orchards that Weston’s farming operation is bearing fruit. Helen Thomas – managing director and fourth generation cider-maker – re-introduced the company’s Bounds Herd of polled pedigree Hereford cattle in 2005 with the help of farm manager Tom Manns. And 2019 was another cracking year for showing stock.

He explains: “We’re doing more showing than ever as it’s our shop window ending with the (Royal) Berkshire Show which still has farming at its focus. We sell a number of stock bulls from the Bounds Herd at around 14 months old to dairy farmers. They’re liked for their size and to use on replacement heifers.”

The plaudits from the past year include five breed championships, runner-up Interbreed title at Monmouth, and Interbreed at Chepstow for the herd based on 30 breeding females. “Yes, it’s been quite a bullish year,” he suggests.

The in-hand organic farming operation also includes a flock of 150 pure-bred Lleyns. These follow cattle across the undulating grassland which sits a stone’s throw away from the cider mill near Much Marcle. Once finished prime organic lambs are sold via ABP at Shrewsbury to retail outlets.

A small area of cereals grown for stock feed – 7.3ha (18ac) of barley and oats – was insufficient to justify most machinery costs and is today replaced with silage leys including lucerne.

What grains are needed are bought in from the nearby Holme Lacy College for a dry mix which includes a protein pellet and minerals as a general stock feed.

“Across the farm we’ve recently finished a 10-year Higher Level Stewardship scheme and have been accepted in to a mid-tier scheme as a follow-on,” continues Mr Mann.

Plans for the farm to become a LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) unit were dashed but the company remained committed to educating visitors. These include business people visiting the mill to groups of local school children.

“One of the main changes for 2020 is we’re going to be sowing wildflower mixes on the six-meter headlands around silage fields to encourage bees and the alike. It helps with the orchards next door as we’re creating habitats for what they call beneficial insects.”

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